Evolving Inks: Consumables Provide Fashion & Function
When analyzing the advancements in the printing and packaging industry that have defined 2016, the latest in digital and conventional printing presses, finishing equipment and workflow software seem to have captured much of the industry’s attention. But advancements in consumables and how they’re delivered have also been a major contributor to the growth and improvements made in the printing industry in the past year.
As growth areas of the industry continue to expand, including digital printing and flexible packaging, inks have had to respond to meet the needs of these technologies and applications. Additionally, as brands are boosting their low-migration requirements, ink manufacturers have had to contend with additional constraints in how they manufacture their product. And as speed and efficiency continue to climb converters’ list of priorities, ink dispensers have had to evolve to produce precise measurements in a shorter timeframe.
Closing the Digital Quality Gap
When digital printing first began to make inroads into the packaging industry, one of the earliest criticisms of the technology was that it was not up to par with flexo or offset image quality. However, as hardware, inks and coatings have developed, it now often takes a trained printing professional to be able to tell the difference.
Tony Renzi, VP of product management for packaging inks at Sun Chemical, explains that the latest developments in ink formulation, combined with the latest technology in digital printheads, have made digital print quality more competitive. However, Renzi explains that it is important to keep in mind that while digital printing can achieve this high level of quality, the technology is best suited for short runs or runs with high variability.
“Digital short runs are ideally suited for printing labels or on narrow-web products that have a high amount of SKUs,” Renzi says. “If you had to print millions of candy wrappers, however, digital printing isn’t the ideal printing process. Digital isn’t yet at the level needed for high speed, long run printing.”
In packaging, digital printing has had most of its success in the label market. Mark Westwell, president and CEO of ACTEGA North America, says that as digital printing continues its growth from labels to paper-based and flexible packaging, it is important to consider the full spectrum of consumables.
Westwell explains that in order to stay competitive, ACTEGA has placed a heavy focus on the developments of specialty coatings that can be incorporated into a digital workflow. Westwell elaborates that by placing a priority on coatings, digital packaging can become more than a method of image production.
“We have created an International Digital Technologies Group, which is split between labs in Germany and the U.S.,” Westwell says. “While we have some important ink development work, we are placing a particular emphasis on specialty coatings, which takes the decoration of printed materials to another level. We’re going beyond graphics into decoration.”
Ink Innovations in Flexible Packaging
A glimpse into any grocery store provides ample evidence that flexible packaging is on the rise, as several products that were once offered in rigid containers such as folding cartons, cans and jars have made the move to pouches.
Grant Schutte, ACTEGA North America’s chief technology officer, explains that as flexible packaging’s reach has expanded, brands and converters are looking to improve on more than just print clarity. He says that special effects are working their way into flexible packaging. These effects range from visual to functional.
While foils and other effects continue to gain steam in flexible packaging to help it stand out on shelf, Schutte says he also expects to see more tactile elements being incorporated into flexible packaging to improve the consumer’s ease of use.
“I think what we’ll see coming through shortly is that tactile effects should be hitting the shelves,” he says. “One of the disadvantages of a flexible pouch is it’s sometimes quite difficult to hold. So there are some very pragmatic elements that can be done to the surface of that pouch to allow it to be more user-friendly.”
Renzi explains that one of Sun Chemical’s goals to meet the needs for flexible packaging applications is to focus on the color density of inks.
“By increasing the color density of the ink, you can print a thinner layer of film and increase the speed of printing and drying without sacrificing image quality,” Renzi says.
The Low Migration Conversation
In the food and beverage, pharmaceutical, and health and beauty markets, it is imperative for inks to have limited migration through the substrate and contact with the product inside a package. While the physical properties of the ink are important to consider in reducing migration, it is ideal for the converter, brand owner and ink manufacturer together to have a conversation discussing printing processes and procedures to ensure there is no ink migration.
Penny Holland, VP of marketing for North American inks at Sun Chemical, explains that to be truly compliant with regulations, it’s essential to ensure that all steps in the package printing and converting process are considered and established as a low migration environment. Ensuring the process is compliant could involve assessing press wash chemicals or any other material being used, as well as ink.
“When we talk about low migration, we also want to expand the conversation beyond the inks,” Holland says. “It really extends to the whole pressroom. While the inks may be low migration compliant, the pressroom where the package was produced must also be configured as a low migration environment.”
One trend Schutte highlights is in the area of migration requirements. Because there are a lack of global regulations, low migration demands are often determined geographically. Additionally, he says that without worldwide regulation standards, brands with large international footprints have had to take charge in determining low migration regulations.
“I think more and more we see global standards are being taken out of the hands of legislators and are really being driven by major brands that are taking the lead,” he says. “If it’s someone like Coca-Cola in the beverage industry or Nestlé in the food industry, they really have tried to synthesize the overarching requirements that their brands have to flow into globally.”
In general though, Schutte says it is encouraging that there is a strong emphasis being placed throughout the supply chain on identifying potentially problematic materials and seeking out replacements that can help reduce migration concerns.
“We want to drive toward a zero impact environment, and I think that’s a good goal for the industry as a whole,” Schutte states.
Ink Dispensers: Accuracy Leads to Efficiency
As consumables and other printing materials and equipment have improved and evolved, the machinery that mixes and measures ink batches has experienced its own — perhaps unsung — innovation.
Jonathan Smith, director of operations for HMJ tech, a manufacturer of ink dispensers, explains that many people in the industry are not aware of the substantial developments in ink dispensing technology.
He explains that as converters are continually seeking automation and efficiency improvements throughout their production environments, a next-generation ink dispenser can be a source of substantial time savings.
As press operators are continually being tasked with more responsibilities and are asked to increasingly work with minimal supervision, Smith explains that maintenance of ink dispensers often falls in their lap. An automated dispenser that features modular components improves the maintenance process and allows operators to spend minimal time working with dispensers.
“Operators are usually the ones taking care of the machines,” Smith says. “Tasks like changing valves, cleaner system maintenance and all the routine things you need to do as an operator — they need to be done with basic tools and no special training.”
Smith explains that one common misconception that package printers and converters often have about ink dispensers is that the larger a dispensing valve is, the faster an ink batch can be delivered. In reality, Smith says that if an ink dispenser with a smaller valve is able to provide a more precise batch measurement, avoiding having to halt a job to correct the ink batch will inevitably lead to efficiency improvements.
In many instances, Smith says, if a converter requires a relatively small batch of ink that requires only a small amount of one specific ingredient, an inaccurate ink dispenser is liable to miss the target and render the batch ineffective. With the latest ink dispensing systems, converters can achieve a 1% margin of error in their ink batches, even on very small dispenses.
“If you have an orange that you’re printing that has a couple of drops of black in it and instead of two drops of black, you put in three drops of black, that’s 50% from its target,” Smith says. “That will have a significant effect and you’ll have to do an adjustment during your drawdown … Precision is a function of the precision required on the smallest ingredient in the batch, and for smaller ingredients it gets to be problematic.”